Eight Below Review (Blu-ray)

The agonizingly long wait for Buena Vista Home Entertainment’s (BVHE) Blu-ray debut is finally over with this week’s release of Dinosaur, Eight Below, The Great Raid and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. With this first wave, BVHE has taken the Blu-ray format into new territory with exclusive 1080p high definition bonus features, instant access to key home theater demo scenes, and some of the most stellar imagery and aural punch a Blu-ray Disc player has spun yet.

Eight Below is an ideal film to present in high definition by virtue of its subject matter. The story takes place mostly in the picturesque mountains of Antarctica where a research guide, Jerry (Paul Walker in a very un-Paul Walker role), has forged a father/child relationship with the eight dogs that pull his sled. The first lighthearted half of the film is chock full of wonderful snowy vistas, mountains and plains as Jerry and his dogs guide an adventurer in search of a meteor crash. The second, heart-wrenching half is a story of survival and perseverance as Jerry and his research team are forced to leave the dogs alone at the base with no means to return due to an approaching storm.

Inspired by a true story, Eight Below bears the earmarks from afar of another typical Disney fun family adventure. In reality, the plight of the dogs forced to survive on their own is tough to stomach emotionally even for adults, and especially dog owners. The stranded dogs have no immediate access to food, no shelter and are certainly not immune to death. They are susceptible to injury, pitted against aggressive foes and have no idea if or when Jerry will return. I have a hard time imagining a child not being disturbed by the imagery of a gigantic enraged sea lion emerging from the belly of an orca carcass and biting a chunk out of a dog’s leg.

The real story behind Eight Below obviously offers no eyewitness accounts of what the dogs actually encountered during their months in seclusion so the aforementioned trials and tribulations are manifested from the writer’s imaginations. Filling in the rest of the screen time is mundane character exposition and exhaustive efforts by Jerry to get back to Antarctica. The writers tried to spruce up the proceedings with obnoxious Jason Biggs humor, a sexy love interest for Jerry (Moon Bloodgood) and even some rather clever pack mentality the dogs exhibit to survive. At times their reasoning and behavior is almost “too human,” especially when one dog barks out instructions to the rest like a Colonel to his troops, resulting in a strategic approach and assault on a flock of birds. Without these engaging scenes with the dogs, a few glances at the watch would easily turn into a premature press of the power button.

Eight Below is one of two BVHE titles encoded in the coveted MPEG-4/AVC codec that has eluded other studios supporting Sony’s Blu-ray Disc format. As expected, the visual experience is nothing short of a breathtaking high definition treat fitting of the best programming you’ve found yourself hypnotized by on the Discovery Channel (DC). Director Frank Marshall was not afraid to mimic DC’s documentaries for some awe-inspiring camera angles that capture the full beauty of the artic environment. The blindingly white landscapes evoke memories of Paramount’s recent Sahara HD DVD where vast desert sand dunes brought a three-dimensional quality to the image. That same three-dimensional effect is alive and well here, even more so when considering indoor scenes retain the smooth edges, sharp colors and contrast and “wow” picture quality. Once Jerry reaches the mountain where his client is searching for the meteor rocks, it’s hard not to stare in amazement at the stark contrast between the pure, untouched snow and dark volcanic rock peeking through. We’ll never know whether MPEG-2 could have presented an equally stunning picture with the two-hour runtime and a high definition short film, but all that really matters is this transfer is a home run.

The audio in Eight Below is presented in a PCM 5.1 48 kHz, 16-bit uncompressed format which takes advantage of a couple key scenes where what’s heard is as important as what’s seen. One such example is a daring rescue where an explorer is wounded atop a thin layer of ice. When the ice starts to crack under the pressure, the sharp sounds pop from various locations in the surround field with frightening realism. A loud, booming orchestral score and consistent level speech through the center channel round out a solid aural experience.

As with the Dinosaur Blu-ray title, Eight Below includes a Blu-scape exclusive short film by Louie Schwartzberg presented in 1080p high definition. “Ice” takes flight over the Antarctica terrain to expand upon the otherworldly scenery from the feature film and can only be recommended to those either looking for more high definition footage or are truly interested in the artic landscape. Also included is a Movie Showcase with shortcuts to three key home theater demo scenes, and an informative but not necessarily entertaining Audio Commentary found on the standard DVD with Director Frank Marshall, Actor Paul Walker and Director of Photography Don Burgess.

Eight Below may appear to be a perfect contender for a family outing but parents should strongly consider keeping young kids away. A necessary uplifting conclusion can’t lift the somber mood imposed through the torturous conditions the dogs were faced to endure for nearly half a year. For adults, far too much human screen time spent away from the dogs only serves to drag out the dog’s fate. Cat lovers need not apply, but high definition aficionados looking for demo-worthy Blu-ray material will be more than pleased with a picture that, so far, ranks only below Dinosaur.

– Dan Bradley

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